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Rain tore down in sheets Tuesday night, but the fans of Earl Wild are troopers. We grabbed our umbrellas, turned up our collars and rushed out into the night, braving cold winds and flooded streets.

And it was worth it.

The crowd that filled Holy Trinity Lutheran Church -- and there was a crowd; isn't Buffalo wonderful? -- was moved to an emotional standing ovation by the evening's end. You could tell that people would have wanted to clap more along the way, too, had not protocol forbidden it except at certain junctures. It was a night of unapologetically romantic music, a night made for emotion and applause.

Wild, at 85, is a veteran of the world's grandest concert halls. He knows his instrument and he knows his strengths. He did a nice job Tuesday of balancing hits with lesser-known works. But most of the pieces had a certain something in common. They all were works of big drama and contrasts. (Three pieces bore the title "Ballade." That should tell you something.)

In person, Wild is something to see. Dramatic as his playing is, he sits there like a rock, his heavy, white-haired head hardly moving. As he wandered through the mists of Brahms, Liszt and Chopin, he seemed barely aware of the audience.

He began with Brahms, throwing himself into the Ballade in G Minor, playing the robust, chiming phrases off that sweet, lyrical melody. The beguiling Intermezzo in C followed. Some take a gentler approach, but Wild gave it a bracing, staccato touch.

He got better as he went along, gorgeously phrasing the romantic middle section of the E minor intermezzo. In the piece's stormy sections, Wild had a bold and different and touching way of pausing at a certain phrase, quieting the piece, pulling it back. Most pianists wouldn't take that liberty. Most aren't as elastic.

Next came Liszt, which best showcased Wild's derring-do.

The delight Wild takes in his spectacular technique might not show in his face, but it shows in his music. To hear those silvery strings of notes, those rolling bass passages -- it can make a listener grin with delight. And some virtuosi play with contemptuous ease, but Wild carries off his feats with warmth and passion and humor. (Anyone who wrote a transcription of the songs from "Snow White" has to have a good sense of fun.)

People actually gasped listening to "Gnomenreigen" -- literally, gnomes' dance. Leaping, rustling and slightly supernatural, it made me think of Wagner's "Magic Fire Music." The oft-heard Concert Etude No. 3, "Un Sospiro," had a singing touch and soft, rippling accompaniment.

The program's second half began with Chopin's famous G minor Ballade, with an ending so bombastic that people threw convention out the window and burst into applause. Wild went with it, rising to acknowledge the cheers. Again, though, it seemed as if he needed time to hit his stride, and I preferred the quietude of the lesser-heard C minor Nocturne.

The last three Chopin pieces, all tour de forces, seemed tailored to Wild's devil-may-care drama. The Fantaisie Impromptu, Op. 66, and the Grande Polonaise Brillante in E-flat, Op. 22, and the second Scherzo all flew past as if in a dream.

What a pro. So he fudged a bit here and there. Who even cared to notice? His spirit, poetry and general delirium eclipsed everything else. Listening to Wild, you don't want to look for imperfections. You want to cheer.

Which is how we got an encore. It was, for the record, the Scherzo in F-sharp, Op. 16, No. 2, by Scottish pianist and composer Eugene d'Albert. I found that out later in the back of the church, where there was much purchasing of CDs going on, and much murmuring about what we had heard.

I don't think we're through talking about it yet.

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